Jade McGleughlin. Studies in Gender and Sexuality. Volume 9, Issue 2. Apr-Jun 2008.
This article is a first-person narrative/reflection that explores the contradictions and paradoxes of a personal decision to marry in light of a political critique that recognizes and names the ways that marriage creates and replicates stultifying and restrictive notions of normalcy. The author grapples with her own ambivalences: support for the critique of marriage’s power to define normal and its simultaneous marginalization of anyone living outside its construct on the one hand, and an understanding of the ways we remain deeply psychologically tied to the social structures that shape our own longings and desires. Within the context of a political movement to protect the rights of same-sex couples to marry, the author articulates a wish for a radically transformed culture that decouples social legitimacy and economic benefits from family structure or choices. Can a feminist queer activist and psychoanalyst have everything?
My girlfriend and I got married, secretly-on the sly-one Friday afternoon because I had an unexpected cancellation. It was a bit more complicated I suppose, but the details are true. This cancellation came on the very day our marriage license would expire, which would have required us to get new blood tests and reapply should we wish to marry. I wasn’t going to do that, having gotten my license in the first place in the spirit of the wild victory gay marriage represented in Massachusetts and particularly because our beloved city of Cambridge decided to open its city hall doors at midnight, making its queer citizens the very first to obtain their licenses. Had the party been less grand or the hours for obtaining a license been more mundane and during patient hours, I don’t know what would have happened. Time then being what it was, Sue, my sweetie, called the chief city clerk at the Cambridge City Hall, who squeezed us in during my 50 minutes and between two other weddings she performed that day.
The chief clerk was appalled. She knew my girlfriend because of her work on gay marriage and other political issues in Cambridge politics. “What? Where are your kids, your friends, and your family? Where is the photographer?” “And you,” she said pointing to my girlfriend in her customary blue jeans and tee shirt, “What’s the problem?” I thought to myself, “My marriage shame,” but instead offered other reasons: busy lives, the right moment, spontaneous, an impulse. In fact, coincidently, our wedding day was also the 23rd anniversary of our first sex, the way gay people are “supposed” to measure the length of our relationships. With me ambivalent and my girlfriend giddy, the chief clerk, vested as she is with the power of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, pronounced us spouse and spouse.
I should say that my lover is one of the architects of gay marriage in Massachusetts. She has participated for 10 years in planning and implementing political strategies and tactics, first in an effort to win domestic partnership recognitions and then to preserve the Goodridge decision, the landmark legal case that won the right to marry for same-sex couples. She is a 20-year staff veteran at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and a full-time political activist. She is a founder and serves on the board of directors of MassEquality, our state’s political organization dedicated to defending and preserving the Goodridge decision. And I am a longtime critic of marriage politics as they exist in the U.S. LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) movement. And I am a psychoanalyst. As public as her life is, I often want mine to be equally private. And as much as she wanted marriage in Massachusetts, I imagine the elimination of marriage as it exists today. And so we hold a lot in tension-compromise, critique each other, censor, move forward. And so it was with some surprise, and also some certainty, that at Cambridge City Hall on May 17, 2004, shortly after 12:00 a.m., escorted by our two children then ages 11 and 9, we became the second couple in the United States to “take intentions” or to apply for a license to marry on that ecstatic night. Two hundred sixty-two same-sex couples received the adulation of 10,000 joyous co-celebrants cheering our country’s impending first legal homosexual marriages. That night’s party marked the very long legal journey away from Michael Hardwick’s 1982 arrest by an Atlanta cop for having consensual sex with a man in his own bedroom, a violation of the Georgia state sodomy law. Couple #1 zoomed to media stardom, their photo and their story beamed around the world by over 2000 media outlets communicating in almost every language on the planet. I felt grateful to be behind them in line and completely overshadowed by their prodigious media profile. At a planning meeting for Cambridge’s Big Fat Wedding Party, some suggested that my girlfriend and I take the first place in line. She declined, tipping her hat to me and, instead, recruited and promoted a fabulous couple. She spent the night of May 16 with them on the steps of Cambridge City Hall, eating chocolate, drinking red wine, and reading the newspaper.
It is hard to describe the ecstasy of the celebration that was May 17, 2004. The huge crowd partied to the wee hours when the last couple exited city hall, paperwork in hand. The marriage fans showed wild spirit and energy of the kind usually reserved for a World Series championship win by the home team. And, in contrast to the marriage movement’s leadership, events, and fund-raisers, the crowd looked more representative across age, race, and class than is often true in our segregated political movement. Everybody, it seemed, was out for marriage.
But the victory I had felt much more excited about occurred in June, 2003 when the Lawrence decision struck down the noxious sodomy laws that had, at one time, affected nearly every sexually active person in the United States but more recently had consigned samesexers to the status of unconvicted criminals, the obvious sexual suspects in a vast conspiracy to undermine heterosexual supremacy. Lawrence freed us from the possibility of prosecution for our sexual behavior but also asserted more broadly (in the best interpretation) that homosexuals could no longer be disrespected in the law. We were citizens. This huge victory marked a fundamental change in the way we queerfolk are considered in law and social policy, and by extension, in society-or that is its promise. (In reality the language of Lawrence is broad enough and is full of normalizing threats such that, according to my lawyer friends, there is potential for problematic uses that have already begun by mid-level appellate courts.) We, my girlfriend and our two kids, marked that momentous occasion at what turned out to be, to our great disappointment, your average under-attended political rally at the end of a workday with 200 die-hard primarily White middle-aged activists. The crowd was happy but oddly subdued in light of the reality that Lawrence reversed and repudiated the tawdry homophobic condemnations of Bowers v. Hardwick.
My girlfriend, who had done community organizing to challenge sodomy laws state by state for many painstaking years and for whom the reversal of Bowers represents personal vindication, had later been admonished by a colleague in the marriage fight for speaking “off message” at the rally that she MC’d. She transgressed the sacred text of “good marriage messages” by gleefully proclaiming the end of our sexual subjugation and leading the crowd in a chant of so-do-my. (Can you imagine a sexy marriage chant?) Her marriage advocate colleagues were appalled. Marriage, apparently, also meant no mention of sex. In a recent conversation, she described sodomy repeal organizing as tantamount to recruiting for a series of root canal procedures and marriage organizing as a piece of cake, wedding cake, to be precise. The gap between the queer response to marriage and the queer response to sodomy repeal seems worth understanding. Didn’t we want to liberate sex from the confines of state (as if we could!) and religion, from procreation, from the proscriptions of gender? Isn’t that the victory we want? Where was the queer celebration of Lawrence”?
As the weeks and months following May 17th’s public celebrations passed, my girlfriend and I learned that several other couples we know had, in a sense, sneaked off to get hitched. Progressive, leftist, feminist queers. Marrying in secret. Although I did not quiz members of each of these couples about the particulars of their weddings, I concluded that they, like us, were not engaging the marriage apparatus to affirm their relationships, all of which had lasted into double figures. All celebrated relationships in other ways. None of us were in need of the kinds of material support traditionally offered newlyweds, having long ago become able to acquire toaster ovens and table settings of choice. All of us wanted, undoubtedly, some of the real financial and legal protections of marriage and were privileged enough in Massachusetts to be able to avail ourselves of these benefits. But none of us could be proud. Can a diamond ever be gay?
Still for us, marriage did several real things. My lover is not a co-owner of our home. We could not get a mortgage at that time with her on the deed. On paper I co-own the house with one of our children’s fathers. So in Massachusetts, if I die she can inherit the house, or “my” portion of legal ownership, without tax penalties-the house made possible by the generous loan from the fathers. She is not the legal parent of either of our children because to do so, their biological father would have had to give up his parental rights, something we feel no need to demand from him, discovering that it really does take a small village to raise a child. Or we could have waged a legal battle for third-parent adoption, which would really have been four-parent adoption because we had our children with a gay male couple who have been together for 33 years. They, by the way, are not married, are nonmonogamous, and enjoy one of the most intimate relationships I know. The multiple-parent family status remains a legal battle possibility, but we have not yet pursued it.
So at schools, in a hospital, in prison, in a moment of crisis our marriage can buy her a legal status and some protections that go with it. She has a verifiable, but still quite limited, legal relationship to our two children. The state matters. But even in this highly truncated version you can see that our family, the parents married or not, does not fit neatly into a marriage structure. And in naming “fathers” I have already misrepresented the emotional reality of who else “counts.” I haven’t mentioned, for instance, that although our children have two fathers who live in another state (the same biological father), their equally significant other parents are my ex-lover and her girlfriend, who were full on “other mothers” until they moved for work and who now travel biweekly from another city to see them. They share meaningful emotional responsibility for the kids. On a daily basis they continue to perform life with us, for instance, “reading” homework over the telephone, the most menial and meaningful job of what it means to be parent at the moment. They are who we are dependent on for the tasks of kinship. How would even a four-parent adoption recognize how we parent?
Nor have I mentioned that the relationship of kin is not a financial one. None of us, on paper, looks as if we have any financial co-dependency with each other except for one father and me. In reality we have only a business loan with each other. My lover and I have no shared financial documentation-not a joint bank account or car, much less our house, and yet we are completely financially intertwined and interdependent. And even though we are legally married and now mark our 21st year of steady-on relationship, and if you are counting with us, another 3 for sex, I rarely call my girlfriend anything but lover, sweetie, or girlfriend and only occasionally use the word “partner.” I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve deployed the word “wife” to describe my co-conspirator-in-life. They have been all at car rental agencies! “Girlfriend” represents a choice I make each and every day without press from a state, a church, a family of origin, a web of economic dependencies. To be my girlfriend’s girlfriend is to live a daily desire with and for her, not to fulfill an obligation defined by external actors and forces. She is mine; I am hers because we wish it to be so. The family we have made is not “traditional” and does not fit into a nuclear family structure, nor would we want it to. And yet we married.
Most of the other sub rosa marriage supplicants were lesbian parents and most, from time to time, had joined the chorus of progressive and feminist marriage critics who rightly identify the institution as one that has historically been used to codify, divide, and marginalize in a variety of ways. They, like us, had gotten married, albeit with more planning than we had done, but sans announcements, big parties, fancy duds. Had they, as we had, suffered some embarrassment and shame about getting married and perhaps having been sucked into the culture and political warp of the institution heretofore forbidden to us as homosexuals and condemned by us as progressives and feminists? None of us want the state mediating our relationships. All of us understood traditional family rhetoric as a most fundamental and powerful instrument of right-wing social policy. And we all want to continue to ask what the state is managing, regulating, privileging with its pro-marriage agenda. We remain committed to a progressive vision of what it means to live a queer life. And so there is a certain sense of awareness that we are abandoning something crucial, of our marriage marking treason to the larger progressive cause of social and economic justice. Having grown up with a potent critique of marriage, marrying can feel like abandoning one’s identity as both a sexual outlaw and as part of a community that is in resistance to “normal.”
Recently friends and colleagues organized and wrote an important document to the LGBT movement entitled “Beyond Same-Sex Marriage.” To date, more than 4000 people have signed on in support. The document seeks to offer a new vision for “securing governmental and private institutional recognition of diverse kinds of partnerships, households, and kinship relationships and families.” It aptly recognizes the need for all people to be able to access economic benefits and options regardless of marriage status, sexual orientation, race, gender/gender identity, class, or citizenship status and it notes that the majority of people as recorded by the U.S. census do not live in traditional families. (According to a New York Times survey published October 15, 2006, marriages have just entered minority status for households with adult cohabiters!) It references the alternative forms of kinship systems created during the AIDS crisis and acknowledges how integral other kinds of kinship systems are in many poor communities in order to counter harsh economic and political realities, to resist the structural violence of poverty, racism, misogyny, war, and repression. And it is important to note that it focuses on the way legitimating certain kinds of unions surely delegitimates others. Further, the authors also note that transgender and bisexual people have challenged legal constructions of relationships and families by shattering the narrow confines of gender conformity and definitions.
The statement calls for an LGBT vision for the future that accurately reflects the realities under which people construct their lives and families. And finally, the authors connect the right-wing attacks on LGBT equality claims as part of a broader conservative agenda of slashing government social programs that support families and children. The statement is beautifully crafted and offers an important critique to the LGBT marriage equality movement. It is becoming a crucial organizing tool to begin to have conversation among queers and with our progressive allies that take into account the interplay between gender, race, and class and complex and varied human relationships. And it points to strategies for achieving the needed support from the state that reflects people’s real lives.
There is nothing to argue about here. I feel sure that if I weren’t living with Sue, wasn’t so close up to marriage in Massachusetts, I would have been a signer. And maybe I still will sign. We want, I want, my girlfriend wants, and Beyond Marriage articulates, recognition and respect for all chosen relationships in their many forms, including legal and economic recognition for a wide range of relationships. We want, and BSSM articulates, access to all vital government support programs, including but not limited to affordable and adequate health care, affordable housing, a secure and enhanced Social Security system, genuine disaster recovery assistance, and real economic support for the poor. We want freedom from a narrow definition of our sexual lives and gender choices, identities, and expressions. And we don’t want to have to marry to get them. And we don’t want the LGBT movement focused exclusively on marriage and separating itself from liberatory politics and from progressive and coalition politics.
And yet there was, we felt, something curiously sexless about the document, missing a certain kind of queer desire. The very feeling of liberation and freedom that May 17, 2004, represented, that kind of group ecstatic experience that many of us there experienced, was absent from the discourse. Of course there is a great irony in rapture being bought by becoming members of the very institutions that gay liberation promised to liberate us from-the three Ms-marriage, mortgage, and multiplying that we once decried. And yet there was a feeling on May 17, a palpable feeling that a certain pain in exclusion had been righted. And had been righted not just because of a legal decision but because decades of movement building and organizing meant the ground for excluding “us” from participation as full citizens could no longer be justified.
This set of longings, to belong, to be included in a society that is organized in important ways by one’s place in those most primary institutions of social reproduction-marriage and family-are powerful and perhaps are the longings and desires that underpin the marriage equality movements. Many people, especially those not previously part of a social change movement, experienced a kind of political transformation as they sought the legal recognition of marriage. What of these longings? Although this gets argued in the language of rights-”it is our right”-and recognition-”see, our relationships are just like everybody else’s,” those are also covers for a deeper set of longings: Longings to be seen as good, as whole, as valuable, as special, as full citizens. Longings to feel that cosmic connectedness across generations and across cultures. Longing to have a place, a place of meaning in the world in which we live and that, more important, will outlast our lives. The underbelly of these longings, of course, is the way we remain deeply psychologically tied to public affirmation of our identities even when we are queer. The unconscious reproduction of psychic structures that shape our longings and desires is part of what we are all up against. The psychic reproduction of desire, certain desires, and I am not speaking of false consciousness here, must be part of our thinking and be accounted for as part of our political strategies. We do not want to be the good gays cast against the ever more marginalized group that chooses(or has no choice about) other ways to live and love. And yet marriage does that. It brings some of us into a kind of legitimacy and allies us with a social hierarchy we are in rebellion against.
Are these just conservative times? Are we just growing older, richer, more privileged? More concerned with inheritance rights than radical transformation? Or does the pro marriage movement carry some other hope? Conservatively the wish to belong, to be accepted, to be seen as legitimate; but more radically the wish for a transformed relation to the society we live in. And if we live as queer married people, does that not lessen the strictures on mandatory heterosexuality? Transform marriage? Can we be married in another way? Can queer marriage disrupt or only contour? As historians point out, marriage has changed historically and has different imperatives at this political/historical juncture. We have to believe we will transform the institution and so society.
I was reminded the night of May 17th of the kind of political high that was present when, after the Hardwick decision, we organized and held a massive civil disobedience action at the Supreme Court in 1987 during the March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. It was clear then that we were fighting for our right to live as fully queer and we were proud. Is there any impulse that is the same? Margaret Cerullo, in her speech at a town meeting on sex and politics, reproduced in Radical America, wrote about that time:
A weekend like this … reveals our secret longings; it reveals them even to us. It reveals our alienation, our yearning for what never was: a moment in which gay people are not only accepted or tolerated, but normative, in which we are the definers of the streets and the bedrooms, where our lives aren’t so separate, split into day and night life, where night vision emerges on the daytime streets. These moments of release reveal to us at the same time the power of the dominant culture that we have left behind, the repressions and self-denials we live with everyday.
Could these revelations be the radical edge of what underpins a very conservative gay marriage movement? The rapture of the crowd would indicate so.
And yet what can I claim personally about the liberatory effects of my marriage? If I accuse Beyond Marriage of soulless focus on the economics of marriage and marry for the same reasons, what am I saying? I’d like to claim the other side of shame …the pleasure that made us do it rather than its simple expediency, but for me it’s hard to find. I remember the day my lover and I first had sex, transformative sex. I thought to myself lying in bed while she made soup having loved me silly, “All I want is a whole afternoon with this babe”-a thing that at the time seemed quite impossible. I was amazed to find that that afternoon came and other afternoons came and still come and I am filled with deep pleasure and really, gratitude. To be so well loved and so well fed week after week …obtaining our licenses actually was a joyous and political moment. Loving each other is transformative. But the marriage itself underscored what already is.
There are less conscious hints.
This week I retrieved a diamond ring that I have reset three times. It’s also the third one I’ve come to have. I got this one, in the first place, in an uncomfortable way. Not sketchy exactly-just a story I don’t want to tell. No girl on her knees proposing. Not from love. And of course people want the story. Because I am queer and because I keep changing it-the diamond’s setting, that is. At first I had to “make it mine.” Then I thought it looked too straight-like someone else’s engagement ring. Now, well, it’s still a lot to wear. This time I had hoped for something older, more antique, and more ambiguous. People would wonder, “Is she married or wearing something of her grandmother’s?” But I haven’t pulled it off. No, not this one either. My mother never had a diamond and I won’t have a “real one” either. I’ll never have a diamond like my mother didn’t. Like my mother?
My girlfriend wonders, Jade maybe you don’t really want a diamond ring?
Three strikes you’re out. (Three, three, what are all these threes…) And yet I do. I do want a diamond. I want a gay, pro-labor, pro-sex liberatory diamond.
My mother married three times. My biggest shame in the elite private girl’s school I attended on full scholarship was that I had not once but twice and later three times a different last name than my mother. Everyone could see. It was on the class list. Marriage shame. I was humiliated. Humiliated by her obvious wrongness exemplified by this public statement-not only of being a failed woman-a divorcée-but by the obvious statement of her sexual life. She must have been having sex. A lot of it. Her sexy clothes, big breasts, and bad rental address coded us “the wrong side of the tracks,” not upper-east-side WASPs, even as her own aspirations for me had everything to do with escaping her roots from an assimilated Jewish family. She wanted for us the social register (no Jews allowed), and my school seemed halfway there along with the east side address (even if it was a little too far uptown) and the Presbyterian church we attended. The forbidden struggle with the complexity of who she was, who I was, our unconscious identifications, meant I found my own affiliations with other “wrong” girls-the only two Jews, one African American, one Puerto Rican, and one west side bohemian. Even my girlhood William Buckley-supporting Catholic friend who now has nine children and prays for me was outcast. WASP only … Buffy, Muffy, and … Cottontail.
But what was respectability? When we say we know the lies behind right living, we really do. The respectables I spent my weekends with in country homes did outrageous things. Like the mother who insisted we wake at 3:00 a.m. and accompany her (we were 7 years old), on “moon walks” through a dark forest. Or the mother who on the drive to East Hampton left the husband at a tollbooth when he stopped for a call, or the one who kept me at a table past midnight ’cause I wouldn’t eat the roasted tongue while she waited for her husband to return from his latest underage affair. Or my friend telling stories about her mother’s bruised eyes that came from “face-lifts” when we could both hear the blows. Or my friend whose brother diddled her nightly and the family said, “Boys will be boys.” I list on and on here simply to illustrate these “crazier” families were not exceptions.
These women wore big sparkling diamonds and married real Wall Street men who breathed respectability. My mother warned me, “Don’t marry the piano player.” The piano player? We didn’t dream of white dresses or play wedding (we did play doctor!) but all of us, but one, got married. She’s still looking.
I thought before I came out at 17, I will never be like my mother. No bad men for me. But my queer defiance was not about challenging respectability. It might have been about achieving respectability. Respectability for her. I wouldn’t do it with a man exactly … but I did manage one lifelong partner, two beautiful children, and a house I own. (I wrote won.) Is that the diamond I really crave? The diamond that should have been my mother’s? She longed to belong, structured her life around a series of “omissions” that would help her do this and yet remains to this day an unwilling outlier. I want to make her fit.
So I’ve queered her life-done what queers always do-made good her bad. Taken her bad and made it my proud. All the things we were ashamed of-her not choosing between a sexual life and motherhood, her matriarchal insistence that her children were hers and the men were peripheral …her hidden ethnicity. These things we claim, we choose, we make right. Sexual-yeah. With motherhood-yes. Jew. Um hum. Proud family whose fathers are a bit far away (forgive me fathers)-yes. I am my mother’s daughter and/but the diamond still ain’t right! No one gave us the special “ring.” We had to scam it. The curious mix of class, race, sexuality, and ethnicity complicates and contextualizes the ideal of marriage. And yet we know, inside and out, the ideal doesn’t exist and that that fact still somehow doesn’t seem to matter.
The political failure to fully expose the sham of the nuclear family persists. Actually we have a critique of family life-we know the lies behind right living, the failures of desire, the fragility of heterosexuality and of respectability. It’s not that it is not exposed but the insidiousness of the way family ideology is employed and lives in our psyches persists. We don’t seem to reshape our wish to live in another way. And it’s no different here in queer communities. Little surprise that the Goodridge are divorcing or the White 59-year-old gay male marriage lobbyist who lives with his longtime boyfriend was caught in a sting buying sex with a college student on the Internet or …We fail the form and the form fails us and yet the idea of the normal family remains as much a lynchpin for gays and lesbians as for anyone else.
Clearly one profound failure of the gay marriage movement is its failure to organize around liberatory principles-to articulate our right to freedom, to live passionately, to fuck freely, to continue to challenge the idea of what normal is. Marriage cannot be our coming-of-age, our maturing to “healthy adult sexuality,” the dropping out of sex and pleasure and alternative ways to be committed and free, to parent, to mange human dependency.
Psychoanalysis helps us here. It offers us the idea that the life of the mind is rooted in sexuality that is both energy-life force-and also meaning. Julia Kristeva writes,
Freud’s version of sexuality, which deems sex to be neither licentiousness nor a source of provocation, is a focal point of solidifying the “essence of man” into a desire that is so indissolubly energetic and laden with meaning that it is inscribed with both the fate that holds us in check and the uniqueness that grants us our freedom.
She continues, “Freud’s sexuality, indeed, is the desire that lies at the crossroads between the genetic and the subjective, between weightiness and grace. As Kristeva elaborates, psychoanalysis, in naming sexuality as the force and shaper of not only relationship but also of mind itself, reminds us of its centrality. It is the central defining aspect of psychic life and it is its failures of desire then, that give way to ill being. Psychoanalysis explores psychic malaise and therefore the underlying logic of “normal.” The unconscious then erases the boundary between normal and pathological, giving voice to excess both as creativity and limit but ultimately as innovation. Queers with their insistence on sex as principle and definer cannot forget their most powerful tool.
The gay marriage movement has not been willing to risk a public conversation about sexuality, about how we live and love, and how central sexuality is to our lives. It is in fact desire that is the threat to family life. It can not be adequately normalized and policed.
It was our refusal to accept privacy over sex that finally opened up the space for us to win sodomy repeal. Sodomy repeal would not have happened legally without a political movement pushing out the ground that dared to talk not just about the right to privacy but also about our right to sex. When we fought it legislatively, trying to underplay its sex, as my girlfriend says, “lubricating legislation,” we failed. When we engaged in a public discussion of “queer,” when we demanded we be full citizens-not subhuman-things begin to change, including the idea that it is our “right” to marry. It seems unbelievable to once again be engaging in a marriage strategy that promises we are just like them when the norm that is represented remains so deeply problematic.
So, the gay marriage people are sexless in their advocacy of a sanitized, bourgeois gay lifestyle that seems to have more to do with the estate tax than with sex. And BSSM seems also to drop out a crucial “queer” dimension in its focus on redistribution. Imagine that instead of a gay rights movement preoccupied with symbolic equality and the estate tax, we had a movement that cared about redistribution-not only in our demand from the state but also in a queer sense. As my colleague says, the issues are a bit different for trannys hooking in Chinatown for access to decent hormones! Or imagine a movement that embraced the real challenges of queer marriage to the culture by taking up issues of queers with children or queer children.
Recently filmmakers “followed” our family on multiple occasions as they gathered footage for their movie on gay marriage, for which they sought mainstream distribution. At its premier I noticed the footage on the children and our queer family life was missing. Instead they had used my girlfriend as a political narrator of the sometimes complicated legislative issues around gay marriage. When I asked why they had cut out the kids, who I found to be among the most persuasive articulators for same-sex marriage, both in their words and in their mere presence, the filmmakers indicated that children embedded in queer families might be too challenging for their audience given traditional notions about gay people and children. I was stunned. The only children in the movie were shown with a single mother-apparently a less threatening idea. I too had almost left mention of the children out of this article for the opposite reasons! I thought it might be a cheap shot to say we married for the children-those conservative little people who begged us to marry so they could be “just like their friends.” They were the most significant source of pressure to marry.
The strategy of the LGBT marriage movement fails to articulate any radical challenge to the traditional family. Yet, at the same time the Beyond Marriage document does not seem to recognize the potential for any kind of social transformation, not even medium-deep social change, which has at least two important elements. First, the right wing knows that queers marrying could/ can/will absolutely transform the institution of marriage. Once homosexuals gain admittance to the marriage club, same-sex married couples offer a stark challenge to the 1950s fantasy family life that is structured by rigid gender roles and mandatory heterosexuality. Two women together or two men together live well outside a system in which the work of building home and family is categorically divided along gender lines. The Christian right-wing movement expresses its own awareness of this when their rhetoric focuses on the gender “confusions” that may occur in families headed by same-sex couples. They are confused, but we are grateful for the opening up of the categories.
Second, the legal recognition of same-sex relationships sanctions queer relationships, until recently considered criminal, psychopathological, sinful, and corrosively immoral. To lift same-sex relationships out of the morass of historic oppressions meted out through law, psychiatry, and religion signals an unprecedented honoring of what only 50 years ago consigned us to pariah status. Marriage for gay people? Simply unimaginable just a short time ago. The fact of gay marriages changes how people think. The hundreds of thousands of people in Massachusetts who have attended our weddings or provided wedding services to same-sex couples who have married, or who hear about same-sex weddings at the water cooler or read about them in the newspaper, can experience a change in their own understanding of what relationships can be. The personal transformations, repeated again and again, conscious and unconscious, build toward a shift in the way that same-sex relationships and our sexuality are understood: queers, too, can be welcomed into the special status that bestows social and legal sanction on relationships and families. The personal still is, with or without a movement, political.
Same-sex marriage opponents rant endlessly about these two aspects of social change: a moral approval of homosexuality that corrupts society and individuals and the corrosion of the family life they live. Our opponents are rightly threatened by same-sex marriage because it means the end of their absolute unassailable certainty that their version of “correct living” will continue indefinitely and without challenge. Same-sex marriage rights are what they’ve fretted about since the 1950s or at least since the Equal Rights Amendment wars of the 1970s. Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Forum presciently worried about genderless restrooms and homosexual marriages, which she rightly understood to be the operational results of true social equality of genders brought about through passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. Schlafly must feel surprised and a little bit cheated that gender-free restrooms and same-sex marriages exist despite her relentless and successful campaigning against the ERA. The right wing knows that as long as there is a deviant immoral group, “normal” remains controlled. If we become “normal,” the precariousness of heterosexuality conferring respectability becomes exposed. The push for and end to divorce on demand or establishing covenant marriages seeks to stabilize a crumbling vision of a certain kind of marriage.
The authors of Beyond Same-Sex Marriage suggest a political focus on household diversity as a more productive strategic counter to the right-wing marriage promotion movement that seeks broadly to disqualify any family formation outside heterosexual marriage from economic and social benefits. The statement notes that a singular focus on the rights of same-sex couples ignores all other disadvantaged family formations and points to contemporary campaigns against amendments to ban same-sex marriage in Arizona and South Carolina as examples of organizers choosing to deploy a more inclusive definition of family to defeat the amendments. It seems equally plausible that organizers in those two states shifted their rhetorical attack on the amendments as being harmful to diverse kinds of families because discussing LGBT families or homosexuality in their states is not, at this time, a winning strategy. How easy can it be to lift up same-sex marriage in South Carolina, where Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has thrilled his pre-presidential campaign audiences by deriding and mocking gay and lesbian married couples with children?
Arizona’s twin campaigns, one in the north and one in the south, defeated the constitutional amendment promoted by Protect Marriage Arizona that would have banned same-sex marriage and outlawed domestic partnership recognition for both gay and straight couples by focusing almost exclusively on the amendment’s impact on heterosexual unmarried couples. The Human Rights Campaign, a major funder of the campaign group called Arizona Together, agreed with this focus. HRC’s field director, Marty Rouse, said, “Once you say gay and lesbian, people hone in on that. We have to focus on the majority of people that will be affected by this. And the majority of people are straight couples.” It was precisely homophobia that pressed them to utilize arguments about household/family diversity as a way to blunt and counter the opposition’s anti-LGBT rhetoric. The treasurer of Arizona Together, Steve May, said, “We weren’t engaging voters in a discussion about homosexuality.” No kidding. The poster couple of Arizona Together’s campaign to preserve legal protections for unmarried, cohabiting couples was Al Breznay and Maxine Piatt. Piatt told the Washington Post that she and Al didn’t care about the right of same-sex couples to marry. “We didn’t care one way or the other. It didn’t involve us. That’s what makes me so angry, is people linked this gay marriage to domestic partnerships.” Her domestic partner, Breznay, said, “We got involved because it was affecting us personally.” Breznay and Piatt, of course, can engage the political machinery for any purpose that suits them, but only 17 of the 28 proposed state amendments to outlaw same-sex marriage have also banned other kinds of legally recognized relationships. Right-wing anti-LGBT organizers will doubtless reconsider the scope of future amendments in light of the Arizona results and may choose to limit them to defining same-sex couples out of legal marriage and, perhaps, other kinds of relationships too. The fix to the Arizona problem seems simple enough and then, we are right back where the trouble began: homophobia sets the terms when it comes to legitimizing our families, our sexualities, and our lives.
Would there, will there be any positive transfer from the 2006 Arizona campaign into a subsequent campaign that focused more narrowly and specifically on same-sex relations? Will Al and Maxine return the favor of Steve May, gay treasurer of the Arizona Together campaign, who worked tirelessly to preserve their legal status of domestic partnership, which LGBT people created when we couldn’t marry? The analogy to the Arizona campaign strategy is to discuss sodomy law repeal and reform only in terms of sexual privacy. Arguing that 96% of heterosexuals engage in oral sex ignores the reality that both case law and public policy practices recognized a heterosexual right to privacy that was denied homosexuals in the 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick decision. Is this another version of lubricating legislation?
Perhaps at some future date when homosexuality is not defined as a destructive social force, a balanced and reasonable debate about household diversity will occur. But in the midst of vicious and public campaigns to mobilize voters to support constitutional amendments that bar same-sex couples from marrying and, by extension, assign second-class status to homosexuals forever and always, we cannot avoid the reality of homophobia as the central motivator for voters and the organizers of these campaigns. The right-wing proponents of the most broadly worded amendments to ban same-sex marriage may also seek to punish opposite-sex nonmarital relationships. In Ohio, the 2004 amendment to outlaw our marriages denied legal recognition to any relationship other than opposite-sex marriages, which has resulted in court rulings that domestic violence laws are inapplicable in nonmarital cases of partner abuse. Organizers in Ohio argued against the amendment on the grounds that its unintended consequences would be hurtful to non-LGBT relationships. The amendment passed, perhaps because straight married voters had no interest in protecting straight unmarried partnerships, but it seems more likely that voters, married, coupled, or single, did not see same-sex relationships as deserving of legal recognition. Marriage amendment campaigns are about much more than homosexuality, but they are first and foremost about homosexuality. Homophobia is the poisonous tip of the right-wing spear. As long as the Christianized right-wing anti-LGBT movement comes at us with the charges of the immorality of homosexuality, we are forced to organize to counter those charges, in defense of ourselves, our families, and our communities.
What then of our strategy? I agree with the authors of Beyond Same-Sex Marriage that a society in which all people have access to basic human needs like health care regardless of marital or family status is the society we want to create. Focusing on securing benefits for the diversity of our families must remain a crucial priority for queer organizers as it has since we began domestic partnership organizing some 20 years ago. But poor queer families in particular have much to gain right now from the economic benefits of marriage. In my own place of past employment, a large children’s hospital, I began organizing for domestic partnership benefits in the late ’80s. We were one of the first large organizations, ahead of corporations and universities, to offer domestic partnership benefits and we insisted then that those benefits be extended to any domestic unit. We lost that fight; straight cohabiters could marry and so if they chose not to the hospital was not required to insure their partners. Now, with marriage in Massachusetts, queer people have lost domestic partnership programs as well. In order to have access to employment-based benefits, they must marry, despite the compromises that marriage forces, especially with regard to immigration status and foreign adoptions.
The promise of Beyond Same-Sex Marriage is the political vision and goal of uncoupling the basic human needs for health care, secure old age, housing, and myriad other privileges and “benefits” from marital status. Imagine a political coalition that includes advocates for the old, for single heads of families, for grandparents raising their children’s children, for universal health care, for organized workers, for students, for immigrants, and for LGBT people joining together to demand the recognition of household units based upon their economic interdependencies rather than marital status and citizenship status. Such a coalition to distribute benefits to households, not marriages, is a political possibility but one that is yet unrealized. The Beyond Same-Sex Marriage document stands as an initial call to political action that deserves response not only from LGBT organizations but also from other groups that make economic inequality and delivery of basic needs central to their work.
Still for us one part of an overall strategy is a marriage strategy because that is the current and most direct route to kinship status for adult couples in committed relationships. To not be recognized as next of kin is to be made stranger to our lovers, our partners, our spouses. A poignant and painful reminder of the status of non-kin was delivered following the death of our friend, veteran gay sex radical, social critic, and LGBT political leader Eric Rofes. Rofes died suddenly in the summer of 2006 in Provincetown, Massachusetts, a mecca for queer people situated in the only state where same-sex couples can marry. He and his lover of 17 years had registered as domestic partners under California law, where they made their permanent home. They had joined thousands of other queer couples to celebrate their marriage at San Francisco City Hall during the weeks of February 2004 when Mayor Gavin Newsome declared an extralegal halt to marriage discrimination. Eric Rofes counted as close friends some of the most powerfully connected gay lawyers in our movement, many of whom lived in or had close ties to the Massachusetts power structures. All his paperwork was in place and perfect. And yet, when his lover attempted to make decisions about Eric’s remains, ordering an autopsy and choosing cremation, the medical examiner’s office and the crematory pushed back, insisting that Eric’s mother was closest next of kin and that Eric’s lover’s decisions would be subsumed to hers. After some 48 hours of struggle and presenting documents to public officials by powerful lawyers who were attending the funeral, Eric’s lover was finally recognized as the decision maker, but at what terrible cost to a grieving survivor and what indignity to a man deeply committed to securing social and legal equality and freedom for us all. For someone poor or unconnected?
We want real choice because some of us need it. We never want to create a class of “good” gays who then further marginalize those who celebrate another way to live. We are the transgendered queer, the public sex queen, the unmarried couple, the happily single or celibate or polygamous queer. We are the queer growing old, and if the research tells it like it is, many more old queers then old straights will do that alone. There is nothing queer about that. But we want to keep pushing up against the defining institutions of our time, battering at their doors, demanding entry, and surely messing up the house. With sparkling fingers?